This story is a collaboration between The World and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Listen to the latest episode of Reveal for more on this story.
On a recent morning in Salinas, California, in the state’s rural heartland, David Rivera and Alfonso Hernández worked shoulder to shoulder, installing irrigation pipes across freshly plowed fields that stretched to the horizon. Wearing jeans and sweatshirts with their hoods up to block the sun and dust, they prepared the fields for a spring planting of spinach, lettuce and broccoli.
Nearby, a large billboard featured a man wearing leather gloves and a white cowboy hat, an irrigation pipe hoisted over his shoulder. It read: “Salinas Valley. Feeding Our Nation.”
A version of this story originally aired on The World. Listen here.
It was mid-March, the same week that US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency because of the novel coronavirus. By then, over 250 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in California. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide shelter-in-place order was imminent. Just an hour or so drive north in Silicon Valley, businesses and schools were shuttering, and hundreds of thousands of people began working from home.
But for people like Hernández and Rivera, working from home was not an option. An estimated 2.5 million farmworkers across the United States are now deemed essential workers — exempt from shelter-in-place restrictions to keep the country’s food supply flowing. California farms are vital to that system, producing a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.
Yet at a time when social distancing and careful sanitizing are necessary safeguards against exposure to the coronavirus, little has been done to protect farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and work in remote, rural parts of the country with little access to health and social services.
"No, not yet,” Hernández said in mid-March, when asked whether he and his co-workers had met with their employer — Elkhorn Packing, a Salinas-based farm labor contractor — about workplace safety in the face of the coronavirus. “There should be a plan in place by now,” he said.
But Rivera and Hernández, both from Mexico and unauthorized to work in the US, were hesitant to push the issue, grateful to have jobs. Many of their neighbors were already losing their jobs at restaurants, day care centers and hotels.
As they spoke, at the far side of the field, a crew of 20 men and women arrived to work in carpools, crammed into trucks and minivans.
Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America, said he and his team have been surveying farmworkers informally for weeks, asking what messages they’re getting from their employers. A March 24 poll of about 300 mostly nonunion farmworkers found that more than three-quarters had received no guidance from their employer on safer ways to work, Elenes said. He said many farmworkers, like Rivera and Hernández, are scared that without changes, they remain vulnerable to infection.
“Rightfully so, because they’re not being provided information,” Elenes said. “They’re scared of losing the money. They’re scared of getting infected.”
He said it angers some farmworkers to be heralded now as essential, after those who are undocumented have lived with virulent anti-immigrant sentiment and threats of deportation from the Trump administration. “So when the government says they’re essential workers,” he said, “the workers are responding, saying, ‘Now we’re essential?’”
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Elenes said many immigrant farmworkers feel compelled to keep working, even while sick, aware that other jobs are drying up as the economic crisis deepens. A skipped paycheck means not only less money for their families in the US, but less support for family members in their home countries.
“They’re going to continue working because they don’t feel that they have a choice. You know, bear with it, work through it,” Elenes said. “It’s really distressing because these workers are the backbone of this country in terms of the food supply chain.”
Hernández said that last week, long after the US had become the epicenter of the global pandemic, there had been a meeting with his boss at last. “We were told to wash our hands more,” he said.
That was it. No gloves or disinfectant supplies, he said. No conversation about avoiding crowded carpools to work, no changes to ensure more physical distance in the fields. Elkhorn Packing did not respond to an interview request. As of this week, there is no mention of the coronavirus on the company’s website.
Excluded from relief
The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed into law March 27, provides $9.5 billion for growers, ranchers and agricultural companies. Yet the legislation blocks many farmworkers themselves from seeking federal help. Nearly half of all farmworkers are unauthorized to work in the US, and the bill limits assistance to those with Social Security numbers.
That means more than a million people deemed essential workers are ineligible for the one-time cash payment of up to $1,200 that the federal government will issue in coming weeks. Many farmworker families will also be blocked from receiving the bill’s $500 rebate per child if their parents lack a Social Security number. And unauthorized farmworkers are also unable to apply for unemployment insurance, which the aid package expanded by $600 a week for up to four months.
Some members of Congress are seeking to make future coronavirus economic relief measures more inclusive. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-CA, whose district includes the Salinas Valley, co-sponsored a new bill in early April that, among other measures, loosens eligibility requirements so “workers, regardless of their immigration status, have access to health, nutrition, and financial aid during this crisis,” he said in announcing its introduction.
“We’re going to continue to fight for these protections,” Panetta said in a recent interview. The pandemic, he said, is “highlighting not just how valuable farmworkers are, but how vulnerable they are.” Panetta wants to see bolder moves as well, such as temporary legalization for essential workers who are undocumented.
For now, the exclusion of many immigrants from federal relief will force hard choices.
“If it’s your only income and you don’t really have access to unemployment, then you’ve got to keep working,” said Daniel Sumner, an economist at the University of California, Davis. “You’re willing to do things you wouldn’t do normally.”
More than two-thirds of farmworkers also lack health insurance.
An earlier bill, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, provided financial incentives for companies to provide paid sick leave, “ensuring that workers are not forced to choose between their paychecks and the public health measures needed to combat the virus,” according to the Department of Labor. Yet the new rules exclude companies with more than 500 employees, including such large agricultural employers as Elkhorn Packing. That means Hernández and Rivera won’t be eligible.
The new law also allows businesses with fewer than 50 employees to seek an exemption from providing paid sick days.
“That means a lot of farmworkers will be left out of this paid-leave provision,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank. Costa’s research shows that most farmworkers are employed by small farms, and he expects that “the vast majority” of those farms will apply for the exemption.
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The Agricultural Council of California, as well as California’s largest growers — including Taylor Farms, Driscoll’s, Bowles Farming, Bolthouse Farms, Swanton Berry Farm, Sábor Farms, The Wonderful Company and Grimmway Farms — did not respond to or declined interview requests for this story, as did officials with the state and federal departments of agriculture. However, some large farms have posted statements outlining their commitment to employee health and safety. Driscoll’s, a berry giant based in Watsonville, California, states that it is following all “precautionary measures from social distancing to the basics of hand washing that have always been fundamental to our food safety standards. Rigorous reinforcement of food safety and worker standards are already in place within our network of independent growers and throughout our supply chain.”
Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers, a trade group that represents some 2,500 fruit and vegetable growers, said farmers are taking worker safety seriously.
“We’re all making as many changes we can as quickly as we can,” he said. “I am actually confident that farmers have been diligent in increasing all that they already do to protect workers in the fields in light of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Some smaller farmers said they are offering their workers paid sick leave, even if they may not be required to do so under the new federal rules. Phil Foster, who runs organic farms in San Juan Bautista and Hollister, California, said he has expanded paid sick leave to over 60 hours for his 38 full-time employees.
“My hope is that the folks on the farm are going to stay as healthy as they can, with maybe a few blips here and there,” he said. “We will continue to try and get fresh produce out to people in our community and our region.”
Foster anticipates that his workers may soon need to wear face masks, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this month. He has a few coveted N95 masks on the farm, but not enough for everybody — and he can’t find any online or anywhere else. So he’s improvising. “My wife is a schoolteacher, and when she is not doing online classes, I’m seeing if she can sew up some masks,” he said. He is also asking one of the field workers, who also works as a seamstress, if she can sew some.
“We’re doing the best we can ...We realize none of these measures provide 100% security, but are best efforts with the information that we have available."
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Paul Muller, an owner of Full Belly Farm, an organic farm near Sacramento, California. He recently changed policies so that crews no longer travel with more than one driver and one passenger in the trucks. He also expanded paid sick time to two weeks. “We realize none of these measures provide 100% security, but are best efforts with the information that we have available to date from our public health experts,” he said.
Yet overall, farmers’ responses appear uneven. Esmeralda Zendejas, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, which serves many agricultural workers, said some growers were staggering work and break schedules so fewer employees were gathered together at the same time. But she is also receiving reports of troubling violations.
“Just last week, we got a call from a worker who said there was no hand soap on the farm,” Zendejas said. “It’s alarming because these violations have been occurring and now, with the crisis, we’re seeing that continue with even higher risk for the worker. And these are just the workers who take the step to call us. We’re sure that this is happening on a larger scale and workers are just not reporting for any number of reasons, including job insecurity.”
Brenda Eskenazi, a public health professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has helped lead extensive studies on the health of Latino farmworker families in California. She noted that even when hand-washing stations are provided, they are often set up too far away for frequent access. The time it takes to reach them can mean money lost.
“It might be really difficult to wash your hands for 20 seconds and to do this multiple times a day, especially if you’re getting paid by the basket of strawberries that you pick,” she said. “You might want to rush the process.”
“Clearly, oversight is needed,” said California state Sen. Anna Caballero, a Democrat whose district includes the Salinas Valley. “There’s no question about it. We don’t have a system that says, ‘Here are the new rules that everybody has to work under, and here is the oversight in place to make sure that the rules are followed.’”
Improvising to mitigate risk
With few protections in place, field workers are doing what they can to protect themselves. Claudia Isarraz, 43, lives with her husband and two US-born teenage sons in Greenfield, a small town near Salinas. Isarraz belongs to Líderes Campesinas, an advocacy group of female farmworkers in California, and works for $13 an hour pruning grapes at nearby vineyards, which have remained open, as the agricultural industry as a whole has been labeled essential. Weeks before the state imposed the shelter-in-place order, she said she began washing her hands more at work and encouraging her co-workers to do the same.
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She is also trying to put distance between herself and co-workers who appear sick. Recently, she said, a 65-year-old co-worker was coughing and sneezing while hunched over the crops. “I asked her, ‘Shouldn’t you be home?’ ” Isarraz said. The woman waved her off. “She told me it was her allergies.” Isarraz moved to another row in the field, doing what she could to protect herself from any potential exposure.
Although it was an expensive decision, Isarraz canceled her carpool, which used to involve packing in five or six people to share the cost of gas. As of late March, she said, “I’m going to work on my own, driving on my own.”
But not everyone can do that. On the outskirts of Greenfield, where paved streets give way to dirt roads, a long row of modest single rooms are lined up, one after another, across from vast fields. Their beige walls and doors match the earth. Nicolás Merino González lives in room 13. Still in his late 20s, he looks older than his years after a life of outdoor work.
In mid-March, Merino was still heading to the fields by cramming himself into the cab of a pickup with other workers. On a recent morning commute, Merino said, a fellow passenger could not stop coughing. “It was like that for four days,” he said. “I thought, ‘It’s not good that he’s going to work sick now.’ But staying behind means a lost day for him.”
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Merino understands the pressure to work. He works in the spinach and lettuce fields of Greenfield in order to wire money back to his family in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, more than 2,000 miles away. The $13.50 an hour he earns is an economic lifeline for his three young children, paying for food and utilities. He is the family’s sole breadwinner.
On a recent day off, Merino rested outside of his room, which he rents for $260 a month. The room is small, with just enough space for a single bed. A half-full bottle of rubbing alcohol sat on a nightstand. “I use it to clean my hands,” he said. “If I get a cold, I’ll rub it on my face.”
For soap, Merino uses a single bright pink bar, shared by all the other lodgers, in their communal bathroom. The kitchen and showers, too, are shared. Social distancing is difficult.
Roger Tenanuque, the caretaker of the lodging house, grew up in Greenfield and now lives three doors down from Merino. Although he earns little more than cash-strapped renters like Merino, Tenanuque does his best to keep things stocked. He buys soap and paper towels with his own money, he said. When asked whether he thought the renters here would stay home from work if they felt ill, he said, “I don’t think so.”
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Merino hopes to avoid making a tough choice. He said he has never called in sick in the United States and has never visited a hospital here. “I have been in Mexico, where I have insurance,” he said. “But I don’t have that here.”
The next challenge for Merino and other farmworkers may be less work. Several field workers said they were already seeing a cutback in hours in the past weeks. Areceli, 41, who asked to use only her first name because she is undocumented, cleans lettuce and spinach leaves near Greenfield. Last week, she was asked to work eight hours a day instead of her typical nine. Other farmworkers also said their hours were reduced.
“We’re seeing losses of hundreds of millions of dollars per week easily in the fresh produce industry,” said Puglia, of Western Growers. “Restaurants, but also schools and universities, hotels and resorts — think of Las Vegas, for example — have all shut down for the most part. And that means that farmers, whose customers are in the food service supply chain, are in a really tough spot.”
Caballero, the state senator, mentioned other signs that the industry is under stress. This week, she said, strawberry producers told her of canceled contracts with grocery stores and deliveries being turned away. Growers told her that they ended up donating the perishable berries to food banks.
Caballero said there is “great consternation” among growers about consumer demand for their summer harvests.
“I’m hearing about more cuts in hours, and I’m bracing myself for more,” Areceli said. She is not sure what she will do. She knows she’s not allowed to apply for unemployment and won’t qualify for any cash assistance from the federal government — even the $500-per-child benefit.
“If they want to leave me out of that, fine, but it’s unfair to leave out my two kids just because I don’t have the right papers,” she said. “They are US citizens.”
At the same time, Areceli observed something new this week: “I’m seeing moms and dads coming to the fields, asking if there is work. It’s noticeable.” She wondered whether they had lost other jobs amid the mass layoffs roiling the state and were now heading out to the fields to find work.
Reporter and producer Anayansi Diaz-Cortes contributed to this story. It was edited by Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.